Air fares keep dropping and planes are getting more high-tech — what's not to like? But according to one airline expert, we can't look forward to much more improvement in the flying experience.
As head of cabin marketing for Airbus, Bog Lange puts a positive spin on much of what happens in the airline industry. But his recent keynote speech at the Business Travel Show In London also highlighted some of the restrictions on how air travel can improve.
We've referred previously to Lange's views on how planes will have to get better at letting passengers use their own devices. But while that might sound promising, there's plenty of indications that travel can't get that much better.
While the design on planes like the A380 might be steadily improving, there's one simple reason why you're not likely to get much more space at a reasonable price: we're turning into a bunch of porkers.
"Today we have a situation where in the 10 major OECD countries 50% of adults are defined as overweight or obese," Lange said. "That's something which is extremely difficult for an aircraft manufacturer to deal with." End result? They don't, and you end up paying a small fortune to sit next to Mr and Mrs Lardbucket of Ohio.
That doesn't mean we're not seeing price variation. "For a mature market such as trans-Atlantic, we have enormous differentiation in price," Lange said. "The multiple between the lowest available fare and the "turn up and book" price can be a factor of 1 to 40. Economy is highly price elastic
But all that is happening in the back end of the plane. Business class offers a lot more space, but that's not getting any cheaper — and the airlines don't want it to. "For a full-service carrier, business class accounts for 15 to 20% of seats but 40% of revenues. This is why the business class market has been the driver for segmentation across the rest of the aircraft."
Nor does Lange see many more low-cost carriers appearing. "There's only room for a certain number of players in a low-cost market. Low-cost carriers are looking to differentiate in the cabin" And when they do, they charge more.
And no matter what happens in the cabin, other complaints about air travel will keep the prices up. "It will become increasingly difficult in the future to build or expand aircraft. We will see more and more curfews and that combined with time differences will mean there are fewer and fewer attractive departure slots. On those key departure points, airlines will be able to get higher fares." Ouch.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman can't see himself cutting back on air travel any time soon, so he hopes y'all lose some weight. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.